Music plagiarism

Music plagiarism is the use or close imitation of another author's music while representing it as one's own original work. Plagiarism in music now occurs in two contexts—with a musical idea (that is, a melody or motif) or sampling (taking a portion of one sound recording and reusing it in a different song). For a legal history of the latter see sampling.


Any music that follows rules of a musical scale is limited by the ability to use a small number of notes. All forms of music can be said to include patterns. Algorithms (or, at the very least, formal sets of rules) have been used to compose music for centuries; the procedures used to plot voice-leading in Western counterpoint, for example, can often be reduced to algorithmic determinacy.

For these reasons, accidental or "unconscious" plagiarism is possible. As well, some artists abandon the stigma of plagiarism altogether. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich perhaps commented sarcastically on the issue of musical plagiarism with his use of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," an instantly recognizable tune, in his Prelude No. 15 in D Flat, Op. 87.[1] In some instances, it was also erroneously assumed that songs are still in copyright such as "Happy Birthday to You".[2] In 2015, a lawsuit which challenged the copyright, found this was not the case.[3]

Many songs are in public domain. For example, the work of Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) is public domain in the European Union because Johnson died more than 70 years ago (1938 + 70). Some songs from W.C. Handy (1873 – 1958) are public domain in the USA because they were published before 1922 (e.g. "Memphis Blues"), but they are normally not public domain in the European Union until 2028 (1958 + 70). But the "Rule of the shorter term" (i.e. where copyright law overlaps, the law with the shorter term is upheld) makes them public domain in the states of the European Union.[4]

According to U.S. copyright law, in the absence of a confession, musicians who accuse others of stealing their work must prove "access"—the alleged plagiarizer must have heard the song—and "similarity"—the songs must share unique musical components.[5] though it is difficult to come to a definition of what is "similarity".

Folk tradition

The issue of plagiarism in folk music is problematic as copying and not crediting songs was common. Noted blues author and producer Robert Palmer states "It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own".[6] Folklorist Carl Lindahl, refers to these recycling of lyrics in songs as "floating lyrics". He defines it within the folk-music tradition as "lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics".[7] In 2012, when Bob Dylan was questioned over his alleged plagiarism of others music he responded, "It's an old thing – it's part of the tradition. It goes way back".[8] Princeton University professor of American history Sean Wilentz defended Dylan's appropriation of music stating "crediting bits and pieces of another's work is scholarly tradition, not an artistic tradition".[9] In 1998, B.B. King stated on the issue, "I don't think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow."[10]

Musical ideas

Plagiarism is relevant to different musical styles in different ways.

In classical music, software exists that automatically generates music in the style of another composer, using musical analysis of their works. Most notably, David Cope[11] has written a software system called "Experiments in Musical Intelligence" (or "EMI") that is capable of analyzing and generalizing from existing music by a human composer to generate novel musical compositions in the same style. EMI's output is convincing enough to persuade human listeners that its music is human-generated to a high level of competence. For this reason, Cope's work has been said to not produce original music. A different approach is been followed by Melomics, a technology focused on teaching computers the rules of music composition, not the works of previous composers. This technology has opened the way to truly creative computer-composers, like Iamus and Melomics109. The records produced (Iamus' album and 0music) are in the computer's own style, so they cannot be considered a pastiche or plagiarism of previous works.

According to Theodor Adorno's highly controversial view, popular music in general employs extensive plagiarism: variety in the musical material occurs in details whereas genuinely original musical content tends to be sparse when compared to classical or art music.[12] Contradicting this claim is classical music critic Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times who said that many composers used material from previous composers—for example, "John Williams all but lifted the core idea of his soundtrack score from the Scherzo of Erich Korngold's Symphony in F-sharp Minor, written 25 years earlier."[13]


Main article: Sampling (music)

Sampling has long been an area of contention from a legal perspective. Early sampling artists simply used portions of other artists' recordings, without permission; once hip hop and other music incorporating samples began to make significant money, the original artists began to take legal action, claiming copyright infringement. Some sampling artists fought back, claiming their samples were fair use (a legal doctrine in the USA that is not universal). International sampling is governed by agreements such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaties Implementation Act.

Today, most major artists obtain prior authorization to use samples, a process known as "clearing," by gaining permission to use the sample and, usually, paying an upfront fee and/or a cut of the royalties to the original artist. Independent musicians, lacking the funds and legal assistance to clear samples, are at a disadvantage unless they seek the services of a professional sample replay company or producer.

Recently, the free culture movement, started mainly by Lawrence Lessig, has prompted many audio works to be licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows for legal sampling of the work provided the resulting work(s) are licensed under the same terms.


Usually cases of alleged plagiarism are settled out of court, due to the expense of litigation. Most artists try and settle for costs that will be less than defending costs. Since the 1850s federal courts have published fewer than 100 opinions dealing with this issue.[14] The Columbia Law School Library's Music Plagiarism Project provides information on many cases over the decades, with a few dating back to the 19th century.[15]

Successful suits and settlements

Unsuccessful suits

Unsettled, alleged, and forgiven incidents

The following are accusations of plagiarism appearing in notable media:

The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took "American Girl" [for their song "Last Nite"], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, "OK, good for you." It doesn’t bother me.[89]

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